Minivan Life

I Hate that I Love Seabrook

What looks like a century-old beach town actually sprang to life 20 years ago on the Washington coast. Is this place unabashed artifice or a master plan for vacation bliss?

By Allecia Vermillion May 24, 2022 Published in the Summer 2022 issue of Seattle Met

During a parent coffee at my son’s elementary school, conversation turned to two families’ recent trip to Seabrook. One dad’s assessment: “It’s like Desperate Housewives at the beach.”
“Does that mean you didn’t like it?” I ask. “Oh no, we had a great time.” Before moving along to refill his cup, he paused to relay a vital bit of advice: “If you go, bring your own alcohol.”

Lately a small town on Washington’s forest-bound coastline has edged onto my Instagram, and into conversations with friends. But for every photo of kids riding bikes in front of sun-dappled cottages, there’s someone else who wrinkles their nose at the idea of such constructed quaintness. Other people sound almost sheepish as they confess their love for this place. “It’s a planned community, it’s totally The Truman Show,” a friend of a friend acknowledged—right before telling me all about how her family bought a vacation home there last year.

 

The town's deeply intentional layout, where all paths lead to the sea.

Seabrook looks like a village from a bygone era, all winding lanes and wraparound porches, saltboxes and shingled cottages. But it sprang into being in 2005, a West Coast Nantucket proxy built from scratch like a movie set. What’s even more unusual than an entire town rising out of a tract of culled timber land is that it did so at the behest of a guy named Casey Roloff, who came at this undertaking with no formal background in architecture or urban planning. He was barely 30 when he assumed his unusual job title: town founder and CEO. 

This picket-fenced stage management stands out against the wilds of Washington’s coastline. In Seabrook every house has a name, like Sea Esta or Sandy Side Up. Every neighborhood is optimally arranged, in picturesque milieus filled with green space, decorated with birdhouses. It’s easy to scoff at this artifice, especially in a region where we tend to vacation atop mountains, in tents, or otherwise embedded deep in our untamed natural environment. Still, by last fall, I was antsy. Air travel felt dicey at that stage of the pandemic, especially with two young kids. But man, would it feel nice to be somewhere other than my own house. I found myself on Seabrook’s meticulous rental website, a Zillow by way of Tinder filled with glamour shots of Federalist-style row houses and classic Craftsmans with porches full of rocking chairs. I debated amenities like hot tubs and bunk beds and winced at the three-night minimum to book (it goes as high as seven nights in summer). Then, I made a rental deposit. My family was going to Pleasantville.

 

I first learned of Seabrook through my friend Kim. Or, more accurately, through dreamy-lit photos of her family walking a breathtaking expanse of beach. Kim has unimpeachable taste in television shows, reads great books, prefers the character of an old home over the garaged ease of cul-de-sac life. In other words, she’s not someone prone to hanging out in a planned community.

“I’ve had other friends who are like, Why do you like that place so much?” she allows. “I can’t really explain it because it’s a very Stepford-y, meticulously planned, weird little enclave.” But there’s something about it, she says. The change of scenery. How easy it is to bring your dog, bring your two kids, bring your own food. Her friend Emily McMason has come nearly every year since 2009, when both Seabrook and her kids were in their infancy. As her son and daughter got older, she says, the town’s compact layout let them roam with a freedom she’d never consider back home in Olympia. “They got this sense of adventure and being in charge of something, and a little bit of the unknown.” 

 Molly Firth, a health policy consultant who lives in north Ballard, still sounds surprised that she and her husband now own a house in Seabrook. “Are we insane? We never thought we were going to be those second home kind of people.” Her fascination began when her accountant shared a link to his own Seabrook house—a vacation getaway that doubled as a prolific retirement investment, thanks to a clamoring demand for rental homes. “Oh my god,” Firth marveled as she checked out the listing. “This is so expensive to rent—and it looks amazing.”

 

Most Seabrook visitors spend their stay riding bikes and walking the pristine swath of beach.

On her family’s first visit, they found Seabrook’s biggest draw is the same one that keeps them in Seattle proper: You can walk everywhere. “We get there, we park our car. When we leave, we get in it again.” Within months, they made an offer on a two-story cottage with a carriage house, so friends could stay.

Seabrook fills its calendar with razor clam digs and Saturday markets, but most regulars I spoke to admit they don’t do much when they’re here, beyond swimming and bike rides and beach walks. “Bored by my own choosing,” as Firth puts it. She’s still not entirely sure the investment side of their home will pencil out. But she does know that a certain calm sets in the moment her car reaches Ocean Beach Road. “I start to feel my body relax in a way that it doesn’t at home. And that’s pretty nice to have right now.”

 

Seabrook bursts into your sight line with the abruptness of a fever dream. Round a bend on State Route 109 and suddenly the wall of forest gives way to a town, its colors and edges not yet faded by decades of rain and wind and saltwater. 

Well, it’s not an official town, though I’m sure there’s a seashell-bedecked sign in the gift shop that would argue it’s a state of mind. Formal niceties—a police force or post office, a mayor—require a critical mass of population. Instead, Seabrook marks its entrance with a giant Adirondack chair seemingly to scale with the Lincoln Memorial, and the perennial ring of construction work as the town core adds new buildings. 

Rain beats down as we pull up to our blue cottage, with its deep dormer windows and bright yellow door. I gaze at the dampness outside and wonder if my kids will be bored out of their minds. Inside we find a firm “no shoes” policy, and gently nautical decor straight out of the Live Laugh Love Emporium. We’re not traveling with any pets, but my four-year-old daughter goes bonkers for the built-in doghouse tucked beneath the staircase.

Every carriage house apartment we pass, every weather vane and inviting pedestrian lane,  speaks to Casey Roloff’s obsession with how the space around us can imprint our lives.

Suited up in slickers, we head out to explore Seabrook’s compact town center. The rain has halted the outdoor beer garden, but we peruse a candy shop stocked with retro sweets in big glass jars and artisanal chocolate bars lined up fetchingly in old wooden card catalog drawers. Whoever handles the window displays has a black belt in tissue paper. Around the corner, hardbacks fill the shelves of a legitimately great bookstore with an upstairs reading nook. I tear my kids away from the toy store next door, but make a mental note of the sturdy long-handled shovels meant for the beach. Seabrook sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean, its waves visible and audible through the windswept spruces and cedars on the other side of the highway.

It’s easy to see why someone with a healthy mistrust of propaganda might balk at such overtly manufactured charm. Every detail is perfect, from the scuff-less walls to the buoys casually draped around fence posts. I wonder if Seabrook gives these out at homeowners’ meetings. Back at our rental, a sign hanging over the stairwell admonishes me to “Relax.” In their own way, the communal firepits and the boutique full of Seabrook merch and scented candles whisper the same thing.

After dinner at the pizza restaurant in the heart of town, the rain lets up slightly. We use Seabrook’s official real estate map to navigate toward something called the Gnome Trail. The trailhead turns out to be an enormous old stump, hollowed into a playhouse. After a few obligatory photos, we follow a path down into the forest. We’ve barely left the perimeter of homes when my son spots something colorful near a log—a pair of gnome figurines, each on a tiny Adirondack chair. “There are more!” He scrambles along the remnants of a fallen tree to find others set atop stumps or in gnarled roots. My daughter races off on her own gnome spotting mission. It’s a refreshingly low-fi attraction considering the surroundings, but it’s also, frankly, a huge hit. At home I have to strong-arm these kids to take even a half-hearted neighborhood walk.

My husband and I are still back on the path, our presence suddenly not all that necessary. I turn to him, peering out beneath my rain hood. “If only we had some wine.”

 

Town founder and CEO Casey Roloff built homes on the Oregon coast before creating Seabrook with his wife, Laura. Their family moved here full-time in 2009.

Casey Roloff stands in the middle of the street, pointing out the architectural significance of porches and cupolas on homes that flank the town square. He’s in his element; I’m the only one who’s nervous about the white van that’s slowly bearing down on us as we occupy the roadway.

We’re in front of Seabrook’s white clapboard town hall, which mostly functions as a wedding venue. I attempt to edge back onto the sidewalk, but the town CEO stands firm and explains, the streets around us are designed so you can see something of beauty at the end. Sometimes it’s a civic building, like the faux town hall. Other times it might be a house with a strategically placed cupola, or a building turned at an angle, enticing you to keep walking, explore further. 

Five months after my family’s stay in Seabrook, I return to meet the man who willed its charm into being. We’re on a version of the “how to build a town” tour Roloff leads every Saturday for visitors—could probably lead in his sleep. “Our job is to make drivers feel super uncomfortable,” he says, acknowledging my palpable discomfort at blocking that white van. “So that pedestrians are at ease.” 

Roloff has an outdoorsman’s tan; in his ballcap, jeans, and flannel shirt jacket, he looks younger than his 50 years, as if he might light out for a beach stroll after this, instead of his next meeting. Every carriage house apartment we pass, every weather vane and inviting pedestrian lane, speaks to his obsession with how the space around us can imprint our lives. Seabrook’s growth from a $2.5 million investment to a 500-home town with a real estate sales value of $500 million speaks to his business acumen.

It’s not an official town, though I’m sure  there’s a seashell-bedecked sign in the gift shop that would argue it’s a state of mind.

Roloff and his wife, Laura, were barely out of college when they parlayed a house-
painting business into building a series of high-end custom homes around the Oregon coast. He majored in business, but was forever sketching houses. The first time Laura brought him home to Portland’s historic Sellwood neighborhood, he marveled that her younger self could walk to school, walk to the candy store, and ride her bike all around. Roloff grew up across the river in Vancouver—all suburbs, no sidewalks. 

“We were incredibly sophisticated town planners and designers before the automobile,” he says as we pass a former grass lot, now a buzzing construction site, in the heart of town. Soon it will be a two-story grocery store, he says, with a proper clock tower. 

I ask, “Was this grocery part of the original town plan?” Lily Walsh, his marketing director, pipes up beside me to point out, “Well, we’re standing on Market Street right now.” 

Around 2000, the Roloffs learned about a town in Florida called Seaside. A team of architects had transformed a piece of land along the panhandle coast into a resort community filled with traditional wood-framed cottages and the trappings of a classic small town. In the process it became a scenic postcard for the movement known as new urbanism—and a game-changer for urban planning on par with the iPhone. New urbanism, of course, isn’t actually new, Roloff acknowledges, as our footsteps take us from concrete sidewalks of the town center to oyster shell paths that signify a more residential neighborhood. It revives principles that built places like New York or Paris, or even Madison Park: An emphasis on pedestrians over parking. Different types of buildings—luxury palaces, cottages, apartments over storefronts—in close proximity. Rather than portion the spheres of our lives into office parks, malls, and subdivisions, it ensures most of what we need in life is within a 15-minute walk, preferably along idyllic boulevards filled with varied architecture. Seaside’s success led to new urbanist enclaves across Florida and spread from there. Its ideals have influenced redevelopment from Portland to Portugal. 

The Florida community of Seaside was a big inspiration for Seabrook.

“Seaside brought back this art and pulled it out of the garbage can,” he says, before shaking my hand and sprinting off to another meeting. In Washington, “We’re putting it back into practice.” 

This ethos extends inside homes, too. Whitney Wiggins, selections coordinator and interior designer for Seabrook Land Company, helps homebuyers navigate a checklist nearly 300 decisions long to ensure aesthetics find that fetching midpoint between architectural cacophony and cookie-cutter similar. Built-in bunk beds and those under-the-stairs doghouses are some popular add-ons. So are window seats—a place to retreat with a book and a blanket. Here, open floor plans draw families together. Front porches that abut sidewalks encourage strangers to say hello to one another. During the pandemic, the number of people who live here full-time doubled; now it’s about 15 percent of homeowners.

After Roloff’s town-building tour, I order an oat milk latte at the new Vista Bakeshop. Last year, he enticed two couples with experience at Canlis to open this place and a tavern just around the corner. I walk back through the neighborhoods—down tree-lined walkways, past architecture that becomes increasingly pastoral as you leave the town center. Now I see the intention in this built environment in bold relief against such carefully wrought quaintness. 

Seabrook isn’t contrived, though its ambitions run much deeper than complementary paint colors and cutesy house names. And it isn’t fake—it’s configured to guarantee very real moments of connection. The kind most of us hope for when we pack up our car for a weekend away. Are these memories any less real if they didn’t happen by chance? 

 

All those cracks about The Truman Show aren’t totally random; in 1997, the Jim Carrey movie actually filmed in Seaside, Florida, using that pristine backdrop for the story of a man who discovers his entire life is a reality show: his charming hometown of Seahaven really a stage-set populated by actors.

Jim Carrey in the contrived world of The Truman Show.

The town was barely a decade old when film crews descended, still too unsullied to feel like an actual, lived-in place. “The newer these places are, the creepier they can feel to people,” Roloff says on our tour. He flies out to visit Seaside often. A quarter century later, “the patina is so beautiful.” 

He’s waiting for Seabrook to adopt that same patina. So far, patience has rewarded Roloff’s vision. At the town’s entrance, the next stage of Seabrook rises up. An urbane complex will layer condos above a fine dining restaurant with ocean views and roughly 150 seats. It’s less Nantucket, more South Lake Union, angled to ensure the rest of the town center retains its share of the ocean view. Across the street, Seabrook’s tiny wine bar just expanded into a space four times as large with a cellar most restaurants would envy. So much for bringing your own alcohol. 

On my family’s final day in Seabrook, the rain subsides and we make it to the beach, toting folding chairs and buckets across the highway and down the bluff path. Slopes of earth on either side protect this sandy stretch from Washington’s peculiar custom of letting people drive cars on some of its beaches. 

In true Northwest fashion, my kids’ beach attire consists of monsoon-level rain gear. We run. We chase the waves. We zip our jackets against the wind, get down on our waterproofed knees and dig. We do all the things I did growing up, and all the things I want to share with my own children, but never know how.

An entire Hollywood lighting department couldn’t improve upon the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean. The ubiquitous string lights glow; the air is full of the smell of wood burning in communal firepits and the sound of waves crashing, now that construction has ceased for the day. This place may be hyper-managed, but all around us, its strictures create a sort of unseen freedom. 

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